As a former public school student and teacher and the current parent of young children, Carole Sleeper (M.A. ’05) clearly cares about good schooling: Witness her latest gift to Teachers College -- an endowed scholarship for students in TC's Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis.
But as Sleeper, who recently joined TC’s Board of Trustees, likes to tell it, her commitment to public education really began with a can of beans.
Some years ago in an East New York school where she was teaching first grade, one of Sleeper’s students had not been assigned an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), even though he clearly had a learning disability. Instead, as Sleeper found out, the boy’s kindergarten teacher had addressed his behavioral issues by ordering him to stand alone in a corner, facing the wall.
“That was her way of disciplining him,” Sleeper says. “She didn’t realize he needed help.”
When Sleeper procured an IEP for the boy, whose family was using the program then called Food Stamps, his mother visited her classroom and presented her with a can of beans.
“It is the nicest gift I’ve ever received,” Sleeper says. “That must have meant so much to her, to give me that can.”
Sleeper knows a thing or two about making do. Her father, an electrician and handyman, had left high school before earning a diploma. Her mother, a former high school valedictorian, was dissuaded from college on the grounds that young women were best suited for secretarial work, jobs as bank tellers or marriage.
They raised their children with a very different outlook.
“Education was always stressed,” Sleeper recalls. “It was always about getting to that next level, college. But affording the next level was the hard part.”
“I'm hoping that others with passion and youth will be inspired to change the system.”
— Carole Sleeper
Sleeper attended Susquehanna University in central Pennsylvania on a scholarship that defrayed most, but far from all, of her expenses. Meanwhile, her high school sweetheart and future husband, Nate Sleeper, was at Williams College, bound ultimately for Harvard Business School. From there he embarked on a successful career in financial investment as Carole entered the teaching force. She recalls absorbing the cost of basic school supplies, books and even the rugs meant to insulate children from the dull cold of a schoolroom floor during story time.
“I didn’t realize that, because a lot of the kids had nothing, a lot of the supplies were leaving every day,” she says.
Eventually, Sleeper made her way to Teachers College, where the program in Curriculum & Teaching, with its emphasis on how social, economic and emotional factors shape learning, gave her a deeper understanding of the “whole child.” Since earning her degree, Sleeper has generously contributed to the TC Fund and the Teachers College Community School, while also creating the Carole L. Sleeper Endowed Scholarship, which supports Curriculum & Teaching students committed to working in public schools. And now her newest gift supports students who seek to improve schooling by changing education policy.
“I’m hoping that others with passion and youth will be inspired to change the system,” Sleeper says. “One of the issues I’d like to see resolved is the cost of education to become a teacher or to earn an education doctorate. I know people who have chosen other schools over TC for the same reason I chose Susquehanna University – cost.”
Beyond her contributions to TC, Sleeper also quietly covers some educational and living expenses for one New York City educator. “It’s hard to live in this city as a teacher,” she says.
Though she sees much room for improvement, Sleeper “strongly believes in the system.” She looks forward to the day when she can enroll her three children in the public school near their East Side home – an aspiration placed on hold by an issue over district boundaries. Meanwhile, she is determined to generate advancement in public education from her seat on TC’s Board and with gifts that recognize “the financial needs of students.”
“I want to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots,” she says. “So I feel very comfortable with being able to give something away.”
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